Jar of Lights

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Recently, a fellow indie author made a request of me, to which I overreacted.

“I’m 68 years old. You are 30-31. If, for some reason, I should never get to write/finish my novel, would you be willing to consider finishing it as a novel based on my story? I would consider it a great honor.”

I stared at the screen, scared, angry and annoyed. I typed up a scathing response, but hesitated to send it. How dare you? I barely know you and you’re anointing me as your successor, bypassing your legitimate heirs to make me responsible not just for honoring your legacy, but finishing it for you? I left the email draft alone to think about it. A few days later, I gave a gentle response, somewhere between “no” and “we’ll see.” To which my colleague backpedaled, confused by the artificial tension I’d created.

Why did I react so violently? It took me a bit to figure it out.

June 20, 2009

“…And I can only hope you find peace.”

I finished and stepped down from the podium, wiping away a tear. No applause followed. I had just given the eulogy for my twenty-two year old high school friend, Richard Yee. I met Richie in middle school, when my family moved from Texas to the Atlanta suburbs. I fell in with his group but it was years before the two of us started writing. Once we started, we couldn’t stop. I wrote my stories, he wrote his. We distributed them, soliciting unofficial ratings and reviews from our circle, often trying to one-up each other by writing competing versions of the same plot.

We went to different colleges, pursuing technical degrees. Our emails were always alight with new manuscripts, heated exchanges over commas, repetitive words, nuances of usage, and the relative strength or weakness of a new story. After college, we started looking at the nascent worlds of blogging, ezines, and self-publishing. In 2009 we tried to get a periodical going, but after some head-butting it was clear that he would have his blog and I would have mine. The last time I saw him alive was his birthday, April 28th, 2009. In mid-June, I got the call. Richie was found in his apartment alone, having died of an alcohol overdose, drinking alone, celebrating or mourning what, I’ll never know.

I have print and digital copies of everything Richie ever wrote. When we were both alive, writing was always a passion, a hobby, a fruitful exchange of ideas. We were two boys running around a green lawn in the dusky twilight, catching fireflies. Who had more, whose were brighter, and how to improve our game is what occupied us all those years. If I read dead authors as often as live ones, why should he be any different? John Steinbeck is no more dead or alive to me than he is to other avid readers. He just is. He is Grapes of Wrath, East of Eden, Of Mice and Men. He’s the sum total of all the words he wrote when he was alive, in a very particular order. To him, to his family, that’s his legacy. But to me, that’s his body, his identity. Steinbeck was never a person to me, a man or a woman or a life, only a crisp rectangular stack of books like a message left in a bottle.

After Richie died, I didn’t stop writing, but I slowed. Between 2009 and 2015 I wrote only twelve stories (not counting the throwaways, of course). I walked the lawn, alone, still feebly catching fireflies, but his jar sat on the porch now, a lid put on it. If you, dear reader, have ever grieved, I want you to know I don’t pretend to be your equal for losing my friend. But when I talk about death, I’m not talking about capital-D Death, the essay topic. I don’t fetishize books or the creative writing process. It’s just that at a young and formative age the world taught me a vivid lesson about the intimate connection between death and the written word. When I die (hopefully decades from now), my family will know me as the man, but my broader legacy will be my body of work. My best case scenario will be a fifteen-year-old boy writing a book report on Gingerbread, and my birth and death years will just be numbers, as arbitrary as Steinbeck’s 1902 and 1968.

May 21, 2016

So no, I was not enthused by the prospect of finishing an old man’s novel for him. I thought it was selfish cheat. Why should I lease out the years of my life to accomplish something he had 68 years to accomplish himself? Richie only had 22 years to live, and he lived them. He created his legacy. He may not have finished it, but what’s there will have to do. The human body is an interesting thing. I’ve been carrying this as a part of me for seven years, and it manifested as an indignant, passive-aggressive reticence. For the record, I managed to diagnose this complex and bring the issue back down to the hard earth of civility. Still, the experience scraped away that scar tissue and reinforced that lesson in my value system.

Interviewers often ask us why we write, or when we started writing. It’s a more complicated answer than can possibly fit in a single blog post, because for us writers, writing is our life, it’s how we define ourselves. Regardless of our marriage, our family, our occupation or hobbies or residence, writing is the deepest light within us. It’s the part of us we know will live on past our physical death because we read the lights of others every day. Whether it be Roald Dahl or John Steinbeck or Ayn Rand or Harper Lee or Edgar Allan Poe, we read dead authors and they make us feel alive. Writing, among other things, is a bid for immortality. Because eventually night will come and we want something left on our nightstand to remind us that the darkness isn’t all dark.

Review: Skin and Other Stories

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Skin and Other Stories
Skin and Other Stories by Roald Dahl
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This is exactly the kind of book I remember doing book reports on in high school. I never read these stories, but I remember the “genre” of “classic” short stories. I suppose all students of all time periods refer to the ways around a hundred years ago as “classic.” Alas, I shall continue the tradition. I may have only ever read “The Landlady,” which was not included in this collection. Nonetheless, it cemented in my mind, along with his Hollywood successes, Dahl’s basic style. The dust jacket describes his claim to fame as “fiendishly clever short story collections for adults” and that does a fine job of summing him up.

My favorites were “Skin,” “An African Story,” and “The Champion of the World.” The last one even borders on humorous, a charming story of hubris where the ending gotchya isn’t creepy at all, but puts a wide smile on your face nonetheless. I am sure this kind of book is the perfect gateway to lead young adults into the world of adult literature, and will remain so for decades to come at least.

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Review: A Place of My Own: The Architecture of Daydreams

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A Place of My Own: The Architecture of Daydreams
A Place of My Own: The Architecture of Daydreams by Michael Pollan
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Stumbled over this at the local library. The Omnivore’s Dilemma and In Defense of Food are both on my to-read list, so Michael Pollan was definitely on my radar, but I’d never actually read him, no essays, stories, or articles, etc. The cover and the premise drew me in, as who can’t relate to the romance of building your own cabin in the woods? Far from a simple Walden reboot, this book expertly balances two “narratives,” the physical act of building, and the deeper ruminations on the history of architecture and how it has been informed by (and at odds with) nature. He says himself in the preface that in his writing he has found his niche of fascination and creativity to be “exploring the intersection between nature and culture.” It fascinates me as well.

When designing a chicken coop, one must be sensitive to how your birds live in nature, how many square feet are needed, roosting bars, the privacy and number of broodboxes, etc. These natural constraints form a kind of cross section for a wide variety of creative implementations which in other contexts we call “architecture.” The pitch of a roof, for example, has more to do with the amount of snowfall a region receives (the steeper, the better to keep it from collecting and caving your roof in) than the “local cultural symbols.” The book is full of these explorations, bordering on broody. The author keeps the pace light and entertaining, while educating, as the reader is drawn in to his very primordial instinct to build his own “place of refuge and prospect.” I recommend it for anyone who can relate to this instinct, as it has a rich historical and psychological depth worth exploring.

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Review: Beasts of No Nation

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Beasts of No Nation
Beasts of No Nation by Uzodinma Iweala
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I am amazed how young this author is. How could a debut novel by a twenty-something be this powerful? Telling the story of war from a child soldier’s perspective is difficult, but not groundbreaking. What he brings to the table is the jarring, eerie language. The simplified vocabulary, onomatopoeia, stilted grammar, and repeated words peel back the “language layer” of the narrative to reveal the depth of possibilities underneath. At first I thought the author chose to write a story from the point of view of a child, or a non-native English speaker, or an accented voice. It becomes apparent very quickly that that is not the case. Instead, the author writes “he fired the gun” as “I am seeing he fire fire the gun into bush.” This violent staccato cadence adds a sense of unease to an already fiery atmosphere that sweeps the reader into the raw reality of a third-world battle scene. It feels almost as if he is writing sensations of the reptilian brain straight to the page with no broody, explanatory processing typical of a war novel.

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Review: Zinky Boys: Soviet Voices from the Afghanistan War

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Zinky Boys: Soviet Voices from the Afghanistan War
Zinky Boys: Soviet Voices from the Afghanistan War by Svetlana Alexievich
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I don’t know how you rate a book like this. The skill is not in the writing but in the recognizing. Like a photographer. The “author” writes as a journalist, guiding people down this deep dark chasm in their soul and transcribing their thoughts and feelings and images as faithfully and evocatively as possible. There are many “voices” even within this book, let alone without, that say “just forget it, it’s over, don’t condescend to call our loss a mistake.” The moral good of exposing an unjust war is the hope that the next generation will be less likely to enter into one in their time. I was always taught to love the soldier, hate the war. Honor the soldier, disdain the war, and not to conflate the two. This is as starkly true and as deftly respected in this book as in accounts of the American Vietnam War. The average age of Soviet soldiers being sent to Afghanistan was 19. The public was told nothing. This book guides us through the process of mourning the lives lost to folly and forgiving the survivors for their contributions to a great international wrong. But this book is only a first step. There is not a single testimony mourning the loss of Afghan life or a single apology from an official decision-maker of the time. As in the Nuremberg Trials, the ones at the bottom were “just following orders” and the ones at the top were “just reacting to the incorrect or incomplete intelligence from the ground.” No one’s to blame because the group is responsible, and the horrific groupthink political philosophy the USSR pushed on its citizens is what made such atrocities possible.

This is an important book for recognizing war for what it really is, the bottom of human ambition. And that the attitude of “just letting the pain die with the veterans” as an act of mercy only paves the way towards romanticizing the war’s narrative as the keepers of the memories of the truth slowly and quietly die off. War is not romantic. None of the past, the present, or the future. But when it does come, it is important for the returning soldiers’ voices to be heard, not spit on or censored.

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